Waka Down the River

Paddle your own fifteen-metre, sixteen person canoe.

There’s nothing quite so worth-while, they say, as messing about in boats.  You don’t have to sail on the deep sea or hire a yacht, because most riverside towns have someone renting canoes or kayaks.

Some visitors from overseas call me.  “You’re meeting us in Waitangi tomorrow.”

Yes, I reply, looking forward to time off in the Bay of Islands.  The Winterless North always appeals.

“Come early,” my friends say. “We’ve booked you on a Maori canoe trip.”

Maori waka range in size from shallow-draught one-person craft to 40-metre war canoes, richly decorated and with a crew of 80.  I don’t know what to expect.

When I turn up at the Waitangi bridge with my water bottle, insect repellent, sun block, hat, sunglasses, and waterproof footwear,  I find Taiamai Heritage Journeys in full swing.  Just around the corner, in view of historic Russell township over the bay, the octagonal Paihia Adventure HQ shares the beach with a dozen other activities from parasailing to overnight party cruises.

Taiamai greet us in the name of Ngapuhi, New Zealand's largest Maori tribe. “You’re on the most authentic, raw, honest and spiritual cultural tour available in the Bay of Islands. Nau mai, haere mai. Welcome.”

They present us with a paddle and a lifejacket each. My overseas friends look doubtful, as if the Titanic awaits.  I tuck my camera into a pocket of my angler’s jacket, like all my other gear, since I don’t use a handbag or even a modern manbag. 

Our waka taua, our fighting vessel, holds sixteen people two abreast.  We practice paddling and back-paddling. It’s great fun. Our mixed group of Aussies, Kiwis, Brits, a Hong Kong couple, and a pair of Swedes competes with a second group to see whose waka can turn the sharper.

Then our captains link the two waka with long beams, and we become a double-hulled ocean canoe, ready to tackle the Pacific and find our way back to the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki. We wouldn’t paddle, of course – the Polynesians explored their Polynesian Triangle,  (8000 kilometres each way, ) by sail. However, thirty-two people-power feels pretty unstoppable.

It’s teamwork as does it! I haven’t had so much fun for ages. We learn to chant to help us keep the rhythm, and we find our way up the river. Our host has many stories to tell us  We stop often. My camera moves in and out of my pocket.

Single-hulled again, we glide into a pool half-surrounded by cliffs higher than a house. From left to right a waterfall cascades from the cliffs.  For a moment I fantasise that we could paddle through the falls, but no, that rock will stay there for many more thousands of years. How long, I wonder, did it take for the river to carve away the lip?

Obeying our captain’s orders, we withdraw un-capsized and un-wet. The Taiamai Heritage Journey does not throw you into white-water rapids. “If I brought an elderly relative,” I ask, “and if I worked twice as hard, then could she get by without actually paddling?”

Happens all the time, they reply. We will lift her into the waka and set her upon a cushion. She will be our kuia, our wise woman and boss lady. All you fit mokopuna (grandchildren) will manage okay.

The voyage continues, and we are conscious again of the riches of birdlife and kai moana, food from the sea, all around us. Gulls cry, waves ripple, and the wind sighs in the forest. We pass a busy Ngapuhi marae (settlement and meeting house) nestled on the riverbank. We have time for a quick hello and some photographs, but not for a formal welcome, the powhiri, nor the formal speeches and feast which usually follow. There’ll be other times and other places.

The Maori people have welcomed tourists since the days when Thomas Cook invented the word. Today’s Maori take pride in their resurgent language and growing economic muscle.  Their young folk join other Pasifika (Polynesian) youngsters in kapahaka,  music and dance rock-operas where not a word of English is used. You’ll be welcomed sincerely, because today’s Maori people go all out to show Kiwi culture to the world.

How quickly time flies! We disembark and hand in our paddles.  I’m delighted with my new waka taua skill, with my photographs, and with the whole trip, and so are my friends.  We farewell our hosts, who please me (a Kiwi) by graciously declining tips.  No need, they say. Our pleasure, e hoa, friends. Come again.